George Washington may once have been thought of as "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen," but recent generations find him boring (when not forgotten). In one study of students at the top universities in the country, only 42 percent knew the identity of the man in the famous description of Washington. But 99 percent accurately identified the cartoon characters of Beavis and Butt-Head.
Few of our young people admire the first president for his courage, leadership and dignity, a dashing and inspiring general who led, against great odds, a ragtag army of farmers to win the war for American independence. School children giggle over the story (false) of his wooden false teeth, but they don't have any idea that he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where our democratic foundations were established.
The historical memory of George Washington has gone the way of powdered wigs and silk knee britches, a hero suffering from a post-modern funk, a dusty icon belonging to another time, a politically incorrect dead white male who needs a new image to suit the times.
The people who run Mount Vernon, George Washington's stately home in Virginia, just outside the nations capital, appalled at the ignorance of their visitors, are giving the sedate estate a high-tech touchup. A new center and museum will have computer-generated images, holograms, as well as a 15-minute live-action film created by Steven Spielberg's production company.
"Our idea now is to find ways to show that he was the most robust man of action you can imagine," James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon tells the New York Times. He envisions making the first president an adventurous equivalent of Indiana Jones. (But not Beavis or Butt-Head.)
My first reaction to all this was to groan out loud, but on reflection, it occurs to me that it couldn't be worse than that awful sentimental biography written by Parson Weems. The goody-goody story he told - actually, he made it up - about little George cutting down the cherry tree has a nice moral, but it was too good to be true. The parson could have used a little brashness borrowed from Indiana Jones. History, after all, as created by Herodotus, "the father of history," was not above recounting human achievement in the liveliest manner possible.
Besides, George Washington has undergone a historical banality that is as unkind as it is dishonest. This is the man, after all, whose features the painter Gilbert Stuart described as "indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions. Had he been born in the forests, he would have been the fiercest man among the savages."
He could tame a stallion, breed a jackass, lead an army and charm the ladies. There is always the danger of distortion in dramatization, but if those responsible for sprucing up Washington keep their eye on the man, they ought to find lots of details that would interest even a generation with an attention span you could measure with a six-inch ruler. Information to augment the visual objects may even motivate young people to leave Mount Vernon wanting to know more.
This is not the first retooling of the first president. He has undergone many incarnations and stirred many controversies. Sculptor Horatio Greenough shocked the public in 1841 when he unveiled his statue of the first president in the Capitol rotunda. He depicted him as a Roman in toga, naked to the waist, looking as though he was on his way to take his Saturday night bath. Nathaniel Hawthorne captured the spirited debate with wit. "Did anybody ever see Washington nude? He had no nakedness, but I imagine he was born with his clothes on, his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."
The real danger today is that the new images will get caught in the crossfire of the politically correct and incorrect. George Washington was a man of the 18th century, not the 21st. Though he owned slaves, he freed them at his death. He looked aristocratic, but he disdained the pomposity of royal formality. When the Continental Congress voted unanimously to make George Washington commander-in-chief for the Continental forces, he was observed to have eyes sparkling with tears. "This will be the commencement of the decline of my reputation," he told Patrick Henry.
He was only off by two centuries. It's time to freshen up the label.